No auditoriums, no agenda, no speakers, and no sponsored content
For years, I was fascinated by TED Talks, which I always find creative and energizing. Both as an attendee and as part of several organizing teams, I had the opportunity to meet interesting people, learn about a variety of topics, and attend exclusive receptions.
In 2016, I learned about the Agile Coach Camp at one of the GALE meetup sessions in Washington DC–Games for Agility, Learning, & Engagement. Dante Vilardi, an experienced Agilist who happened to be in the city for work, heard that I was working as an Enterprise Agile Coach trying to move a mid-size financial organization to the next level.
“If you have not heard about the Agile Coach Camp, you should check it out!” he said. I am curious by nature, so I did!
As a result, Ted Talks fell from the top of my favorite event list. Since then, Agile Coach Camps remain in first place.
Curiosity without expectations
That night I did some research and found the website for the next camp. It would take place a couple of months later in Vancouver, Canada. An “unconferenced conference for Agile Coaches” sounded unusual enough to grab my attention and interesting enough to pique my curiosity.
I promptly bought my flight tickets, arranged accommodation, and registered for the event. Everything was set even though I did not know much about the format or the organizers.
Two months later, I flew to Canada for the event. Although I did not bring any expectations, many people might agree that:
- Finding yourself at a conference with no auditoriums, no agenda, and no speakers could bring some discomfort.
- Seeing hand-drawn charts of butterflies, bees. and human footprints fixed along the walls might be a little disappointing.
- Contemplating a room with over 80 empty chairs in a circle and some sticky notes on the floor could easily trigger thoughts such as, “This might be a kids’ exercise,” or “What framework will they try to sell me?”
- Receiving answers from the organizers such as, “Be patient and get some breakfast while waiting for the opening circle,” might be discouraging.
“Be patient” and “get some breakfast” became valuable pieces of advice. The following two days blew my mind. Unexpected feelings of surprise and excitement arose with each activity: helping populate the Marketplace, negotiating time slots with other Agilists, choosing what sessions to attend, jumping from room to room the entire day, having countless hallway conversations, connecting with someone new during coffee and meals, and then repeating all this the next day.
By the end of the second day, I was heading home with a suitcase filled with remarkable learnings and valuable notes.
Hooked up with the camps
Two years later, when planning my trip to the Agile Alliance Conference 2018 in San Diego, I heard about the Agile Coach Camp scheduled for the weekend before the conference in the same city.
I immediately contacted the camp organizers, June Clarke and Llewellyn Falco, to offer my help. I did not know what I was getting into!
Since my arrival in the city, everything felt like running a marathon–getting supplies, figuring out snacks and drinks, finding a shop to print out name tags at midnight, and finding a place to buy five gallons of coffee and getting them to the venue at 6:30 am.
It was exhausting but well worth it!
Although most of the time the three of us were busy organizing and coordinating moving pieces, for two days I had the pleasure of having conversations with extremely smart people in the field whom I had never met in person even though some had greatly influenced my Agile journey through their ideas, writings, and talks.
Diana Larsen, Woody Zuill, Johanna Rothman, Bob Galen, Ellen Grove, Cheryl Hammond, Gillian Lee, Olaf Lewitz, and many others.
I still remember how quickly the topics became deeper and the discussions richer. Over time I understood that it was the result of a well-structured, carefully designed event:
- A neutral space that most attendees enter with both a beginner and a learner mindset.
- A free-of-judgment container where participants become open and willing to ask and answer questions.
- A safe environment ideal for exploring ideas and sharing experiences.
At the end of the second day, I moved to the Agile Alliance conference again, with a suitcase filled with useful tips and crisp ideas.
From a naïve comment to a solid idea
Since that time, attending Agile Coach Camps became a “must” for me–from Raleigh (North Carolina) and Nashville (Tennessee) in the USA to Bengaluru in India. Whether I am enjoying my time as an attendee or helping the organizers, the event continues to amaze me:
- The magic behind the space – the charts on the walls, the Marketplace, the Newsroom.
- The number of things that can be accomplished through self-organization.
- The amplitude and depth we can reach when staying away from commercial purposes or sponsored presentations.
- The number of meaningful connections that can be made in just a weekend.
In fact, it became the answer I gave during the recent Agile Alliance Conference 2022 in Nashville. Every time someone said, “You have a huge smile! Did you do something special this weekend?”
“Yes!,” I say. “I was at my favorite event, the Agile Coach Camp: an ‘unconferenced’ conference, with no agenda, no speakers, no presentations, and no sponsored talks. The topics you explore, the conversations you have, and the connections you make are simply amazing.”
That casual elevator pitch triggered a new question from a number of people who lived in Washington DC: “If it is such a great type of event, why haven’t we had one in our city? That is a shame!” Not many people knew that a camp had taken place in DC in 2015.
So some Washingtonians decided to take action. Danielle Paula, Kadidra McCloud-Hurst, and even Paul Boos (Chair of the Agile Coach Camp Initiative) got the ball rolling: “Let’s have an Agile Coach Camp in Washington DC!”
Four months later, on the weekend of October 29 and 30, we put together an amazing event. Certainly, it required a lot of work and was even exhausting at times. But it was all worth it!
The camp in Washington DC
Over 40 Agilists attended the event, even though it took place on Halloween weekend and was on the route of the largest marathon in the DC area–nearly 20,000 runners passed only five blocks from the venue.
We might have broken some records: 59% of attendees were women, 39% were attending a Coach Camp for the first time, and a special visitor–a 5-month-old baby–attended both days. It became the first in-person “Agile Coach Camp North America” since the Covid pandemic. Each person received two books, “Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching” by Bob Galen and “Untapped Agility” by Jesse Fewell.
“Reconnecting” was the central theme: finding unique and powerful ways to impact and influence other people, including teams, communities, and organizations. Four anchor questions guided the population of the Marketplace:
- How can the reconnecting process be leveraged by our Agile practice?
- Can we help others navigate the process? Is it possible for us to design that process?
- How can we find out what reconnecting means to us and the ones around us?
- How can we become more relevant and impactful than ever before?
As organizers, we were aware that small details take a camp from good to great. So, we raised our hands and asked questions upfront. A few weeks before the camp, Annelie Coetzee from South Africa gave us some powerful and well-timed tips. From this side of the world, Paul Boos provided lots of support and encouragement. That is part of being a global community.
At the Closing Circle, we were pleased to hear comments from each of the attendees–words of appreciation and emotional speeches full of gratitude.
An experience for everyone
The magic behind the format lies in the fact that the topics emerge from the attendees’ needs and curiosity, which adds deeper learning to the experience.
A camp’s intended audience is a diverse set of coaches, team facilitators, developers, trainers, and managers interested in exploring new ideas and approaches in working with others, teams, and organizations. However, some attendees come as explorers to create new ideas, others as shoppers for techniques, and some as visitors to network, see old friends, and make new ones.
Attendees do not need to be experts in coaching, nor come with anything more than a question they may want to explore. Often these questions turn out to be some of the most powerful sessions as people explore answers to them and related topics.
Sometimes we see people from other related domains in academia and consulting. Sociologists, designers, UX specialists, entrepreneurs, students, organizational design consultants, change management experts, and learning game developers have joined prior camps. They usually come trying to learn more about how Agilists approach teams and organizations.
I can further describe the format, the artifacts, the mechanics, or mention some of the fascinating topics we touched on during the camp in Washington DC.
However, I prefer to leave the ground open for you to live the experience. I am confident that the topics you would learn, the conversations you would have, and the connections you would make will leave a mark on your professional practice. By the time the camp is over, your suitcase will be filled with plenty of good stuff–tips to use and stories to tell.
If you want to learn more about the camps or receive support to organize one, simply reach out.
About the Author
This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.